‘Robots threaten 15m UK jobs’ – back in 2015, this was just one of the sensational headlines as the Bank of England warned of the potential impact of increasing automation on the labour market. 

At a time when the Daily Mirror saw fit to run the story with a picture of a Terminator, you might have been forgiven for being a little worried by the new age of machines. 

Fast-forward six years and the news agenda has moved on somewhat – first Brexit then a global pandemic saw to that – but rapid gains in artificial intelligence capability have continued regardless. 

“Automation has developed a lot in the last five years,” David Wright, intelligent automation partner at Deloitte, tells BusinessCloud.

“It has moved from nascent robotic process automation – RPA – software that could automate simple rules-based tasks to include AI components that perform many functions, like understanding images and identifying sentiment.” 

In tech you need feet on the ground, eyes on the horizon

According to the latest data from IDC consultancy, 40% of global enterprises are increasing their demand for automation as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Whether helping call centre agents overwhelmed by requests to clear backlogs or simply freeing up employees to do more meaningful, value-added work, automation has proven to be a trustworthy ally for businesses in their efforts to rebound from the pandemic, says Gavin Mee, area vice president sales for the UK and Ireland at UiPath

“Unsurprisingly, COVID has created a lot of new demands on the workforce and that’s been a learning curve for everyone,” he says. “But if anything, the pandemic has shown businesses how instrumental automation is and has acted as a catalyst for digital transformation in many cases.” 

New York-headquartered UiPath, which has more than 9,000 private and public sector customers, generates close to $1 billion annual revenue from its low-code platform which it says allows any employee to create, deploy and manage automated tasks. 

The Romania-founded giant works with 80% of the Fortune 10 and more than 60% of the Fortune Global 500. 

“Much like how self-driving cars emulate human drivers, our software robots emulate how people perform a business process on a computer,” explains Mee. “Employees today spend billions of hours executing manual tasks every day that could be automated. We believe that what can be automated, should be automated. 

“Supported by robotic assistants, workforces can more quickly secure the insights they need to make decisions and take actions that propel their businesses, and industries, forward.” 

James Penny, CTO at UK-based cloud hosting and IT managed services provider SysGroup, agrees that automation is essential for businesses of any size. 

“When we speak to clients, we discuss the new services which are emerging – AI, machine learning, intelligent use of data – and how we can help them to take advantage,” he says. 

SysGroup is using standard templating tools in its cloud platform to automate deployment of anything from simple virtual machines all the way up to a pure environment. 

“We can deploy software in a Kubernetes container and place it into our enterprise cloud: your data doesn’t go anywhere and it’s more secure because it doesn’t have to move around,” says Penny. 

“If we go into the public cloud, we’ll use the Azure or AWS equivalents of those templates and orchestration models.” 

He adds: “Machine learning is all about spotting patterns and understanding repetitive stuff to better serve the end-users, while AI is just a very complicated extension of ML where it tries to take action in response to those patterns. 

“I don’t think we have actually reached real intelligence yet in machines. But the idea of not using automation, and then not turning that into something that machine learning can move into, is a folly – you just won’t be able to move quick enough to provide the services that your customers need.” 

Far from taking away jobs, London-listed SysGroup – which is increasingly delivering automation solutions to customers – has increased its headcount during the pandemic to 127. 

“Businesses like SysGroup are embracing automation while our customers are also looking to adopt it into their businesses,” says Penny. 

“Once the operating system and the applications have been deployed to do this, people can then focus on the smart piece that sits on top of the automation. 

“People make decisions because they are good at being creative and thinking outside the box. Machines at the moment aren’t quite in that situation and arguably never will be, because they’ll never have the consciousness that humans have.” 

Deloitte’s Wright cites sales, entertainment and hair and beauty services as areas where humans will always thrive. Algorithms will never supplant humans in circumstances where people value human to-human contact, relationships or creativity,” he says. “But we are seeing intelligent automation make a real difference right across many areas of business: for example in HR, supply chain, operations, legal and customer services.” 

Treat your people like your best customer

Deloitte has developed an advanced analytics and automation tool, Markdown Edge, which helps retail clients maximise their return on stock investment by providing the best discount price recommendations. “Merchandisers can accept the recommendations from the tool or adapt these based

on their own expertise,” Wright explains. “We typically see this tool deliver a 5-15% margin improvement through markdown optimisation.” 

Human-robot collaboration has been found to be 85% more productive than either humans or robots working alone, according to research from leading US technology university MIT. 

Mee says that when an automation includes decisions that a human should make – such as approvals, escalations and exceptions – UiPath makes it easy and efficient to hand off the process from robot to human – and back again. 

“The co-bot operates much like a virtual assistant for the employee – but it first needs to be programmed and needs maintenance,” he adds. 

With ‘Robotics Engineer’ one of the fastest-emerging job roles globally – LinkedIn reported a 40% compound annual growth rate in job postings from 2015 to 2019 – Mee says automation is a “net job creator”. 

“Demand for automation has created demand for automation jobs and skills,” he says. “While some jobs will evolve – as they have throughout history – automation enriches the employee experience by unlocking opportunities for human creativity. 

“A great example of this is AutonomyWorks, which leverages the talents of people with autism – attention to detail, focus through repetitive tasks, and dedication to quality – to provide their clients with essential services. 

“They are using our platform to help adults with autism do their jobs more efficiently and precisely… these individuals have greater career opportunities than they otherwise might not.”